Swimming With Sharks

Swimming With Sharks

***

Reviewed by: James Benefield

As with a Shakespeare play, the towering central figure in Swimming With Sharks is talked about, mythologised, both deified and demonised, before we meet him. He is discussed in meetings, heard on the phone and through the walls, but not seen until nearly ten minutes into this slight, perhaps insubstantial, 90-minute movie.

This figure is Buddy Ackerman, played by Kevin Spacey. He is the demon boss from hell, but it’s accepted as he’s a key, up-and-coming figure in the movie business. He jealously guards his pompous title of senior executive vice president of production, he profoundly insults new employers after they get him the wrong coffee sweetener and he sets people impossible tasks in impossible time frames.

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And he’s about to get his comeuppance. His young, wannabe writer, studio assistant Guy (Frank Whaley) has had enough; he pays his boss an impromptu visit at his home, with a gun in his jacket pocket and a serious agenda.

Told in a kind of fragmented flashback, George Huang’s film depicts scenes of extended verbal and emotional abuse, from Buddy at Guy, which occur in and out of meeting rooms, in corridors and in front of clients. Guy decides not to accept the unspoken showbiz mantra that ‘the system dictates that you have to be a slave first, to be a success’. We see Guy trying to talk to Buddy about this problematic relationship, only to face disdain and dismissal by Ackerman’s acid tongue. All this is interspersed with scenes of what Guy decides to do to his boss one night after work. And it’s not pretty.

Swimming With Sharks is concerned with the dangers that self-righteously angry people bring to themselves and their victims, in addition to its Hollywood satire. It’s a revenge movie that uses the movie business as a vehicle for its moral debate. There is nothing new here about Hollywood. The brazen use of the cliché of the cut throat movie business is not original. However, this is not the aim, and it provides almost incidental background to more universal concerns about compliance and authority.

Unfortunately, it is a story we have heard before. The apparent triumph of one character over the other at the end is dark, narratively satisfying and loaded with implication, while definitely not a Hollywood ending. It does sting, but it is not devastating. The character of Guy is not developed enough for us to care, and Frank Whalley is a largely bland presence, failing to inject much conviction into his role.

Luckily, the film does hinge on Spacey’s character, and the bland backdrop provides him with a chance to shine. It’s definitely a character that plays up to his strengths as an actor. He brings intelligence and an articulate expression of internality to all his work, including here. The role of Buddy also allows him to show off his mastery of deadpan and detachment, while portraying his usual trademark cunning carnality and calculated venality. It helps that he is served by some wonderful lines, which could have come from a bloody pen of Satan.

Spacey is one of the two main reasons why the film warrants your time, showing an important step in the evolution of one of the most important American actors of a certain generation (this was his first leading role). The movie is also worth watching because it is a typically atypical entry in the (increasingly forgotten) remarkable hotbed of creativity that was unconventional Nineties American indie cinema. It’s hard to draw comparison to anything that came before this film; we’d now say it comes across as the bastard child of Neil LaBute’s In The Company Of Men and Robert Altman’s The Player. Competing with the likes of this, early Tom DiCillo, Tarantino and Soderbergh, it’s not actually hard to see why this film is not as widely known as it might otherwise might have been.

Reviewed on: 20 Aug 2009
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A frustrated studio assistant attempts to exact a violent revenge on his bullying boss.
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Director: George Huang

Writer: George Huang

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley, Michelle Forbes, Benicio Del Toro, T.E. Russell, Roy Dotrice

Year: 1994

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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